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From rugby star to Falcons tight end, Alex Gray knows this is 'where I'm supposed to be'


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Long before Alex Gray decided to set aside the sport he had become a star playing and travel across the Atlantic Ocean to begin an intense three-month training period in Florida, he had already become intrigued with one NFL team.

If Gray was to have any chance at succeeding in a sport he had never played, the 2015 Rugby Players' Association Sevens Player of the Year was going to have to start watching games. As he began to pay attention to NFL football, one team stood out above the rest.

"It's really funny, actually. When I wanted to learn about the NFL a bit more, when I thought very early on that me doing something like this could be an option, it was the Atlanta Falcons that I used to watch," Gray explained after a training camp practice with his new team. "They had a hell of an offense here; they were so explosive. I really enjoyed watching them.

"When I met up with the guys from the NFL and they said 'who do you enjoy watching?' I actually said, 'Well, I've been watching the Atlanta Falcons.' And, lo and behold, I've ended up here. It's crazy, but with all of the things that have happened, it's just made me think that this is where I'm supposed to be."

Few athletes in the prime of their career would walk away from a sport they've grown up playing after becoming a star on their country's national squad, but that's exactly the journey Gray has embarked on, leaving England to come to the United States.

Listed as 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds, Gray has been tabbed to play tight end for the Falcons. As part of the NFL's International Player Pathway program, Gray is ineligible to be activated at any point during the season. Instead, he is guaranteed to be a special 11th member of the Falcons' practice squad for the year.

Although he won't be allowed to play in games this season, Gray's real goal is to learn and improve as much as possible to prepare himself for a shot in 2018.

"This is what I'm about; this is what I enjoy; this is why I play sports," he said about the daily grind of training camp. "Trying to get better every day, you know, just developing your skills. It is just trying to be the best you can be every single day. This is the life I've lived since I was 17, and it's what I do, it's what I love.

"It's also a bit different now, with a different game I'm not used to. I'm loving the challenge. A successful day to me might be different to Austin Hooper or Levine Toilolo, because I've never played the game before. So, my focus is just trying to get better every single day, and a year from now, where can I be?"

While rugby players must be in great physical shape, know how to catch on the run and tackle an oncoming runner like NFL players, there are many differences that can make the transition tough.

For starters, rugby, much like soccer or basketball, is a free-flowing sport. Things happen spontaneously on a rugby pitch, and the players must make split-second reactions. In football, there is not nearly the same level of improvisation. Gray's new job requires him to understand his role perfectly and execute it flawlessly on every single play. If he deviates, the offense could fail.

"The two games do share some similarities, but there are very few," Gray said. "I do think the physicality and the toughness you need for both games is as far as it goes. Obviously, with rugby it's a very reactionary sport, because you have to play both sides of the ball and it's always changing. Whereas here, the fundamentals and the details, they're so fine, those little margins. And you know, having to learn a playbook, that sort of stuff. The depth of the knowledge base, to me, for this game, is vast compared to what you need to know for rugby. That's kind of the biggest challenge, really."

Although there is a learning curve for Gray as he adjusts to life in the NFL, he has a lot to offer. Because rugby features a great deal of passing, he feels comfortable in that aspect of the game. Rugby passing is all lateral or backwards, however, so Gray explained that he's still working to improve his over-the-shoulder catches.

As a fast, soft-handed athlete, it's no surprise that Gray named Washington's Jordan Reed, Carolina's Greg Olsen and Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert as players he's watched a bit of film on.

The biggest potential area of improvement for Gray is his blocking. There is no blocking allowed in rugby, and the skill is a very important one for an NFL tight end.

"The passing game isn't that bad," Gray said, "I can kind of get my head around that pretty quickly and know what I'm doing. The run-block game, that's the next level. Not only do you have to know exactly what you're doing, you have to stop a huge guy from going over the top of you and getting to your quarterback. That's definitely the trickiest thing, but it's a process and I'm making improvements every day, and that's all I can ask of myself."

Gray is not alone in this endeavor; he explained how welcoming the Falcons' tight end group was to him. Whether he's coming to Toilolo with a question during practice or sitting with Hooper in a meeting room to go over film, Gray feels as though they are doing everything they can to help him develop as a player.

Of course, the work that Gray, himself, puts in is the most important factor for his development. After Wednesday's practice, Gray was the last tight end -- and one of the last players -- off the field after the Falcons' "Plan D," a post-practice session meant for players to improve specific skills on their own time.

The work that the former rugby captain was putting in did not go unnoticed by the Falcons' head coach.

"You can tell he's bright," coach Dan Quinn said. "So, very few mental busts. And the strain part of it, the physicality from his rugby background, he likes that.

"You can imagine how difficult that would be to come into this environment, how fast you can go. So, not to be overwhelmed on your first week on the job and staying out grinding for it, we've got to give Aden Durde at lot of credit on that from NFL International, who also saw something in Alex to say this guy is a really tough competitor. We're real fortunate we have him here."

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